Three Mile Island nuclear plant

Plumes of water vapor fill the sky from two of the active cooling towers at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant.

THE ISSUE

Exelon announced May 8 that it will shut down Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station’s Unit 1 reactor, which began operation in 1974, by Sept. 30. The Dauphin County facility, which was infamously the site of a partial meltdown of Unit 2 in 1979, has been losing hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Exelon, which first disclosed the possibility of closure two years ago, said significant subsidies or policy changes in Harrisburg would have been needed for TMI to be economically viable. Proposals in the Capitol, including one by state Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Mount Joy, that would provide Pennsylvania’s nuclear industry with about $500 million in annual subsidies from electric ratepayers received little traction as Exelon’s June deadline for refueling TMI loomed.

There is no applause from us regarding the news that TMI will stop producing electricity in September. We think it’s the correct decision, as we have stated here previously. But we regret that hundreds of workers, including about 200 who live in Lancaster County, are likely to lose their jobs. We regret the strain the significant loss of tax revenue will put on Londonderry Township and the Lower Dauphin School District. We regret that businesses around TMI will take a financial hit.

These are the lamentable realities surrounding the closure of any business.

And that is, ultimately, what TMI is. It is in the business of making electricity, and it was losing money. Its owner, Exelon, gave advance warning that TMI would close without some sort of state rescue.

And so the pros and cons of issues related to TMI’s looming closure were debated; these issues include the carbon footprint of nuclear energy, the safety of nuclear energy (and its spent-fuel storage), and the diversity and reliability of Pennsylvania’s overall electricity grid. These are important discussions.

Also debated were the pros and cons of subsidizing nuclear power in Pennsylvania by giving it preferential treatment as a “clean” energy source. A change of status within the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards — as proposed in both state House and Senate bills — would require electricity distributors to make nuclear energy represent 50% of the market, thus giving the industry hundreds of millions in subsidies per year. That money would come out of the pocket of the state’s electric ratepayers.

This approach seemed to us, and many critics, to be an expensive bailout of nuclear power. It struck us as both wrong and curious.

Curious because TMI was the only Pennsylvania nuclear power plant losing money. Why should we give hundreds of millions annually to a profitable industry? As Marc Levy of The Associated Press noted: “Exelon reported $2 billion in profits last year, and critics said a bailout meant investing in outdated, inefficient and expensive power plants while benefiting shareholders of a profitable company on the backs of Pennsylvania ratepayers.”

Unsurprisingly, the subsidy proposals didn’t appear to get much traction in Harrisburg, which is likely why Exelon went ahead with its closure decision.

In this case, no move by our lawmakers was the right move.

The market and the consumers have spoken. Three Mile Island was not profitable. Instead of being propped up, closure is the logical step.

Yet this cannot be the end of the important discussion over Pennsylvania’s electricity grid and its long-term energy plan. It must be just the beginning.

Our state lawmakers should focus on a broader, greener energy strategy for the crucial next decades. Pennsylvania is lagging behind other states in combating climate change, and it needs legislation for aggressively limiting pollution and encouraging investment in zero-emission energy.

We believe there is an important role for the state’s remaining nuclear power plants during this transition. Aument — as a co-chair of last year’s Bicameral Nuclear Energy Caucus Report — did a good job of outlining the benefits of nuclear power within a diverse and reliable electricity grid.

One of the report’s proposals to undergird the nuclear industry involves the establishment of a statewide carbon fee that would be, in essence, a market-based solution valuing nuclear power.

“Currently, damages and associated costs to society caused by carbon pollution are largely not reflected in the price of generating electricity,” the report stated. Carbon dioxide — produced by burning natural gas and coal — is the main greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.

Pennsylvania is studying a citizen-led petition that would price carbon emissions via a cap-and-trade system, StateImpact Pennsylvania’s Marie Cusick has reported. The state Department of Environmental Protection is evaluating the petition, which is modeled after the approach used in California.

“Cap-and-trade is a market-based system that sets a firm, overall limit on emissions,” Cusick wrote last year. “Companies are then allowed to buy and sell allowances to pollute certain amounts. California’s program applies to greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector, as well as to other major air pollution sources, the import of electricity, and the sale of natural gas, heating oil, and gasoline.”

Cap-and-trade is the better approach to leveling the playing field for Pennsylvania’s remaining nuclear power plants, especially against cheaper natural gas. And cap-and-trade would help us reach Gov. Tom Wolf’s call for Pennsylvania to achieve a 26% reduction of net greenhouse gas emissions statewide by 2025 (from 2005 levels) and an 80% reduction of net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (from 2005 levels).

TMI will continue to loom large over south-central Pennsylvania — the iconic towers are not expected to come down until 2074, according to Exelon. Our memories of the accident at Unit 2 in 1979 perhaps clouded some of our discussions about the site’s future. But this closure wasn’t about fear. It was about market forces. And our future decisions about nuclear power in Pennsylvania should be grounded in sensible ideas about the environment, the reliability of the electricity grid and fiscal responsibility.

Vote today

Today is the Pennsylvania primary. Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.

Lancaster County voters registered with either of the two major political parties — and only those voters — will nominate candidates for dozens of municipal and judicial offices. Those positions include school board, township supervisor, borough and city council, magisterial district judge and countywide offices such as register of wills and commissioner. There are also primary races for the state Superior Court.

In one municipality, West Hempfield Township, all registered voters, regardless of party affiliation, can decide a ballot question: whether to allow small games of chance.

Find more information at bit.ly/LNPprimary and bit.ly/PollingSites.

We urge all those who can to vote. Our democratic system works best with the full participation of its citizens.